Sunday Ramble: Travels, Art and Jane Austen Challenge

C.J. and I visited Los Angeles this past week to see the James Kerry Marshall retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the same show we saw last summer in Chicago.  We’ve become big fans of Mr. Marshall’s work.

It was a mad-cap three-day trip–drive down, day in L.A. and drive home–but we managed to visit three bookstores while we were there.  We stayed in West Hollywood, just a few blocks from the Sunset Strip area which is all very nice now, very high-end and very young. We walked down to Melrose Place for breakfast coffee at Alfred’s, which serves beautiful people beautiful lattes.  Lots of window shopping at high end antique stores afterwards on the way back to our very cheap motel.

Up on Sunset, near Book Soup, we found our new favorite bookstore, Mystery Pier Books Inc. which sells only first editions.  It’s a small store in a small building behind the main buildings.  You have to walk down a very narrow alley, the kind typically used as a service entrance, to get to the store which means very few customers find it.  There were just four of us in the store Wednesday afternoon.  The clerks are friendly and helpful, the selection is wide and fascinating, and the prices are high.  I can’t say if they are too high since I have no idea what a mint condition first edition of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is worth.  It was more than I could afford in any case.

My latte at Alfred’s Coffee on Melrose Place in Los Angeles.

We made it out of Book Soup without going over 100 dollars which is nearly a miracle.  My standard for quality bookstores is based on how many titles they carry that I’ve never seen before but have to have. There were many at Book Soup.  C.J. found several, too.  I’ve already started The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski which, turns out, has been on the market for nearly two years now though this is the first I’ve heard of it.  25 dollars and the first of four volumes, all four were on the shelf at Book Soup. I resisted and resisted, but gave in in the end.  I loved The House of Leaves which I highly, highly recommend.


The next night we went to The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. since the museum is just a ten minute walk away and C.J. had never been there.  The space is wonderful, inside an old bank.  The galleries and studios on the mezzanine are lots of fun, but if I stick to my standards, I have to admit that it’s not that great of a bookstore.  And I feel their prices are always one or two dollars too high. We left glad to have visited but empty-handed.

Mr. Marshall’s artwork, which we drove down to see, shall speak for itself.

In Chicago we spent our time trying to figure out what all of the images in each painting meant, what their history was, what they had to say socially and politically.   This time we were able to appreciated them as beautiful paintings. If you get a chance to see the show, see it.

Finally, on what is a rainy Easter morning in the Bay Area, I’ve been thinking about hosting a reading challenge.  I’ve been collecting Jane Austen novels, I’ve only Mansfield Park to go before I have all six of them, for a couple of months now.  I’m not hunting for them, just checking for them when I’m at a used book sale, looking for very cheap copies of each or for the Vintage Classics edition because I like the cover art. My plan is to read them all in order once I have them, one book a month.

Is that something people would like to join in.

Maybe call it The Jane Austen Read All-along?

It would start in July with Sense and Sensibility and end in December with Persuasion.  

I think it would be fun to do the same thing with Elizabeth Gaskell in 2018, though it will be harder to find cheap copies of hers here in America.  She’s much more popular in U.K

I may set something up later this month if people are interested.

Meanwhile, I’m reading away though I’m not finishing much lately.  I did read one of from the Brilliant but Short list, Jenny Offil’s Department of Speculation which was excellent though it has started to blend with the main plot of Danielewski’s The Familiar in my memory.  I’ll have to get a review up soon.  Besides that I’m still working through the first volume of Kevin Starr’s history of California.  Add to that the Danielewski book which is too large and heavy to read anywhere but on the dining room table and the essays in the James Kerry Marshall catalogue which I bought at great expense–art books come at a premium.  Also I’m reading Chan H0-kei’s The Borrowed in chunks since it’s made up of five separate stories featuring the same characters.

And it’s back to work tomorrow now that spring break has come to a close.

38 school days left, but who’s counting.


The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher


This passage may contain everything I loved about M.F.K. Fishers memoir, The Gastronomical Me.

The first time, on our way to Germany, we had sat downstairs while our meal was being made.  There were big soft leather chairs, and on the dark table was a bowl of the first potato chips I ever saw in Europe, not the uniformly thing uniformly golden ones that come out of waxed bags here at home, but light and dark, thick and paper-thin, fried in real butter and then salted casually with the gros sal served in the country with the pot-au-feu.

They were so good that I ate them with the kind of slow sensuous concentration that pregnant women are supposed to feel for chocolate-cake-at-three-in-the-morning.  I suppose I should be ashamed to admit that I drank two or three glasses of red port in the same strange private orgy of enjoyment.  It seems impossible, but the fact remains that it was one of the keenest gastronomic moments of my life.

She’s travelling to Germany in the 1930’s.  She’s managed special seating while she waits for her table, what sounds like very cozy, comfortable seating, something an insider would know how to get.   She has a remarkable ability to enjoy food and to remember just how she enjoyed it, even an ordinary food, something “better” people would scoff at.  I’m reminded of how Julia Child once praised McDonald’s french fries before they stopped cooking them in beef tallow.  She enjoys her chips with too much port wine, not caring if she shares the experience with others or not.

I understand.  I wish I was there.  Imagine eating “casually” salted potato chips when potato chips were a new experience.

The Gastronomical Me covers roughly the first half of M.F.K. Fisher’s life, from late childhood in the nineteen teens to midlife just before the second world war.  Ms. Fisher grew up in Southern California at a time when the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego took all day and required packing a wonderful picnic lunch which she and her family enjoyed on the side of the road while her father tried to repair their car.

Her memoir is about her life and the lives of the people she meets, family, friends, lovers and lots of waiters.  Waiters are better than people, a friend of hers remarks. There are emotional payoffs from reading The Gastronomical Me.  No one who lived in Europe throughout the 1930’s wrote a memoir without “emotional payoffs” but the main pleasure from reading The Gastronomical Me is the food.  Not just the food but the experience of eating the food.

The food is terrific, I just may try frying up some potato chips “in real butter” this weekend and I’ve plenty of port wine down in the basement to go with it, but Ms. Fisher understands that the experience around the food counts nearly as much as the food itself does, at least in the telling.  Would we enjoy the chips and port wine if we weren’t sitting in a comfortable leather chair downstairs waiting for our table?

The setting, the circumstances, the company, the service, the food.  Ms. Fisher sees her life this way; each part of the experience together make up the memory, the memoir.

I’m clearly gushing over this book.  I loved it.  I want more.  Thankfully, M.F.K. Fisher left behind a large body of work, writing about life and about food.

It’s been delicious so far.

Red Lights by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon was once the best selling author in the world. In the 1930’s he was a writer of pulp fiction but once he began writing detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret, he became famous under his own name. He wrote over 100 Maigret stories along with a series of Roman durs, novels depicting the psychological anxiety that lays under the surface of everyday routine.

His novel Red Lights is based on the opening scene in Hardy’s Mayor of Castorbridge. In each a man has an alcohol fueled argument with his wife that ends in abandoning her to the hands of another. In each the man comes to regret his actions.

Red Lights is set in 1950’s New York, among the set of people who could afford to send their children to summer camps in Maine. Steve and Nancy Hogan are on their way to pick up their children at the end of summer when Steve decides to stop at a roadside tavern for a drink. (It’s the 1950’s…there was a lot of drinking.) He argues with Nancy who threatens to take the car and drive on alone. Steve takes the keys from the ignition to teach her a lesson. When he later returns to the car Nancy is gone, a note left on the windshield informing him that she decided to take the bus to Maine.

Steve regrets the argument and his actions. He gets in the car to look for the bus but soon becomes lost. He again stops in a roadside bar where he meets a man on the run from the law. Steve knows from the television broadcast in the previous bar that the man is an escaped convict but he decides to strike up a conversation with him anyway. Surely this man, Steve thinks, is a man unhindered by obligations to society, to work, to women and family. In his drunken state Steve is attracted to this and to the idea that he too could be a man among men such as this.

After they leave the bar, the convict forces Steve to drive him northwards toward Canada. While there is a gun at his back, Steve is far from reluctant. He helps the convict sneak through a police roadblock and probably would have taken the convict all the way to Canada had the car not suffered a blow-out. Steve drinks all night long, the book takes place in a single 24 hour period, and passes out beside the road. When he comes to he sees that he is at a junction next to a repair shop and roadside diner. He is alone; the convict is gone. Since the diner has a bus stop, Steve asks the waitress inside if she has seen his wife. She shows him an article in the newspaper. A woman fitting his wife’s description was attacked alongside the road that night. She is in the hospital recovering. Was his wife attacked by the convict, Steve wonders.
While Simenon’s books are about profound psychological issues and his characters motivated by complex and conflicting emotions, his writing style is always accessible. He deliberately used a basic vocabulary so that all of the people he wrote about would be able to read his books. Red Lights is no exception. Steve Hogan’s descent “into the tunnel” makes for compelling reading; Simenon was once a writer of pulp thrillers and his skills are well used here. Steve’s story is one that lays close to the surface, just underneath the skin of ordinary life. How many people have argued with their partner while travelling, enough to stop the car and have a drink with a stranger, enough to think about stopping the car. It’s this ability to find situations his readers can identify with that make is possible for Simenon’s psychological novels to get under the skin as well as the do.


This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B.  In the years since, I have continued to be a Simenon fan.  (We don’t have one of those cute fan names as far as I know. But if there was one, it would apply to me.)  I hear Penguin has released a few more titles in their Maigret series at last.  

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

WIN_20150602_194426If you love books, then this is the book for you.

I’ve long held that there should be an official genre for novels about books–there are so many stories about bookshops, publishers, collectors, particular books and their power. They deserve a category.

Bibliophilliac Fiction maybe.

Christopher Morley’s first novel, Parnassus on Wheels,  should be at the top of anyone’s canonical list of bibliophilliac fiction.

It’s wonderful.

The story concerns Helen McGill, an unmarried woman who lives on a farm where she takes care of her older brother who has made a name for himself as an author of books about living on a farm.  Tired of her subservient role, Helen buys a peddlar’s wagon from a travelling bookseller.  She intends to take a sort of holiday for a month or so, travelling the countryside in the wagon, selling books to support her journey.

The wagon is now my retirement dream.  It opens up on both sides to display shelves of second-hand books transforming itself into a market stall.  When closed, there is a sleeping/living quarters between the bookshelves featuring a cookstove for heating and a comfortable bed.  The wagon comes with the requisite horse to pull it and a friendly dog who sleeps inside.

C.J. laughed out loud when I told him about it.  “Just what you’ve always wanted,” he said.  He’s right.  I could travel the back roads of New England, like Helen does, selling books at country markets in town squares.

The peddler, Roger Mifflin, goes with Helen for the first couple of days, to show her the ropes.  The two are great company, each bringing their own wit to a charming, entertaining table.  For example:

It is better to read a good book than to write a poor one.

The art of making bread is as transcendent a mystery as the art of making sonnets.

No creature on earth has a right to call himself a human being if he doesn’t know at least one good book.

Talkers never write.  They go on talking.

I named my dog after Boccaccio to remind me to read The Decameron some day.

-His prose is as good as Thoreau.  He approaches facts as daintily as a cat crossing a wet road.  -You should see him eat dinner.

Roger and Helen make for such wonderful company that I didn’t really notice the book just about lacks any dramatic tension.  There is the threat of Helen’s older brother who does try to stop her from buying the book wagon and from leaving the farm, but it’s not much of a threat.  We know from the start that Helen can take care of herself, and we soon figure out that she will probably end up with Roger Mifflin in the end.

I was very happy to discover via Wikipedia that Christopher Morley, whom I never heard of before this, wrote a sequel to Parnassus on Wheels called The Haunted Bookshop.   I would very much like to spend some more time with Helen and Roger.

And a haunted bookshop–what book lover could possibly resist?

Piracy, Turtles & Flying Foxes by William Dampier

piracy turtles flying foxesWilliam Dampier (1651-1715) spent the last part of the 17th century travelling around the world three times, by accident.  He was arguably the most unsuccessful pirate to ever live to tell the tale. Dampier first told his tale in A New Voyage Round the World which is considered to be the first great travel book in English.   When he was low on funds, which was often, and home in England, which was not, he wrote several additional books about his exploits as a pirate, adventurer, sometimes anthropologist and naturalist including the first English account of Australia.

His work was very popular and had a strong impact on his contemporaries including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.  It still makes for interesting reading today.

The extracts included in Penguins Great Adventure series Piracy, Turtles & Flying Foxes contain many of what must be the juiciest bits.  It’s easy to see why Dampier’s work sold so well in the late 17th century, a time when relatively few people had experience when overseas travel.  Even ordinary things seem strange and wonderful when described for someone who had no idea they existed.

This island also produces Durians and Jacks. The trees that produce the Durians are as big as Apple trees and full of Boughs. The Rind is thick and rough, and the Fruit so large they grow only about the bodies, or on the limbs near the Body, like the Cacao.  The Fruit is about the bigness of a Pumpkin, covered with a thick, green, rough Rind.  When it is ripe, the Rind begins to turn yellow, but it is not fit to eat till it opens at the top.  Then the fruit in the inside is ripe, and sends forth an excellent Scent. When the Rind is opened, the Fruit may be split into four quarters.  Each quarter has several small Cells that enclose a certain quantity of the fruit, according to the bigness of the Cell, for some are larger than others.  The largest o the Fruit may be as big as a Pullet’s Egg. It is as white as Mil, and as sot as Cream and the Taste very delicious to those that are accustomed to them.  But those who have not been used to eating them will dislike them at first because they smell like roasted Onions.

While I’ve always been led to understand that Durians were something awful, Dampier has me thinking about trying them.  He even had me thinking about trying Manatee, which he describes as  white, both the Fat and the Lean, and extraordinarily sweet, wholesome meat. He gives such a detailed account of the physiology and habits of the manatee that I thought he must have been a naturalist as well as a pirate.  Consider him a scholar-pirate.

He is not always good with the native people he encounters.  He’s still early enough in the colonial period to be meeting native populations who have had little exposure to Europeans.  The people he meets in Central America rescued his party of unfortunate travelers more than once.

I must confess the Indians assisted us very much, and I question whether we would have ever got over without their assistance, because they brought us from time to time to their Plantations, where we always got Provision, which otherwise we should have wanted.

While he has little but praise for the native people of Central America he is horrified by the people he finds in Australia

The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World.  The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty People, yet for Wealth are Gentlemen to these.  They have no Houses, or skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, Fruits of the Earth Ostrich Eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have.  And setting aside their Human Shape, they differ little from Brutes.  They are tall, straight-bodied and thin, with small long Limbs,  The have great Heads, round Foreheads and great Brows.  Their Eyelids are always half closed, to keep the Flies out of their Eyes, they being so troublesome here that no fanning will keep them from coming to one’s Face.  And without the assistance of both Hands to keep them off, they will creep into one’s Nostrils, and Mouth too, if the Lips are not shut very close.  So being thus annoyed with Insects from their Infancy,  they never open their eyes as other People, and therefore cannot see very far unless they hold up their Heads, as if they were looking at something over them.

I’m not going to defend Dampier here though one should probably take into consideration that he was a 17th century English pirate and that he wrote this description at a time when no one was sure if Australia was a continent to itself or if it was connected to something larger.  However, it is easy for me to see why descriptions of encounters like this one must have captured the interest of the reading public back home in England.  Defoe and Swift both probably read him with their 17th century highlighters in-hand.

Dampier is much more sympathetic with his portrayal of the Painted Prince, a slave from the South Pacific who is entrusted to him on his voyage home to England.  The Painted Prince became something of a celebrity once he reached England due to the tattoos which covered most of his body.  Dampier’s relationship with the Painted Prince foreshadows Robinson Crusoe’s relationship with Friday, even the master/slave aspect of both relationships seem clearly linked to me.

Piracy, Turtles and Flying Foxes ends as it began with a series of near death misadventures.  In the opening section Dampier travels on land where he is rescued by native people while in the closing section he travels on the open sea where he is rescued by providence.  Luckily for both him and his readers, he survived to a comfortable retirement spent writing books about his adventures.   Adventures that ended up as volume 5 in Penguins Great Journey’s series.  I’ll be looking for the rest.